Recently our family has been watching the new TV dramatisation of the 1979 novel Puberty Blues. The girls watch the girls and notice how little has changed; my wife and I watch the fashions and are very pleased that some things, namely shorts and hairstyles, have changed. The show reminds me of one of the nice ironies of school uniforms: that no matter how ‘uniform’ a school wants its pupils to look, the kids will always find a way to add a touch of their own style to their ‘look’.
The English language is a bit like that. English is ‘governed’ by a set of grammatical rules. While these are constantly debated at the fringes, most of those rules are fairly widely understood and used. Examples are starting a sentence with a capital, ending a sentence with a full stop, and including a subject, verb and object in each sentence. Just as a uniform helps a bleery-eyed teenager know what they have to wear each morning, our grammatical rules make it easier for us to understand what we’re reading. (Take note, texters/Tweeters/Facebookers)
However, it doesn’t end there. There are other areas of the English language where things are not so clear, and where you can make your own decisions. What we’re talking about here is style, as opposed to rules. Simple examples of style choice are whether to use (brackets) or – dashes – to separate asides from the main flow of a sentence, or whether to use ‘single quotes’ or “double quotes” around direct speech. Use of British or American spellings is another style choice. Within an organisation, style can include design elements such as fonts and colours.
You can push style as far as you like while staying within, or at least close to, the rules. (Hitch the skirt up, but not too high; grow a mullet if you have to, but don’t let it get too long. And as for nose rings ...)
The most important thing about your style – as every attention-seeking teenager knows – is less the choices you make, more how consistent you are in applying those choices. Consistency demonstrates that you have given your style some thought, which at school builds a stronger individual presence, and in business makes you and your organisation look a whole lot more professional. At the very least, make sure a consistent style is used on every individual document or website.
The best way to manage styles within an organisation is to build up a ‘style guide’ – essentially a list of all the style choices you have made – which is accessible to everyone. Alternatively, you can use an existing style guide, such as the Australian Style manual or the New Oxford Style Manual.
If you’ve never given style a second thought, then perhaps now is the time to do so. You don’t want to be the daggy one in the schoolyard do you?